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Revealed: Secret lives of transgender soldiers who served in Northern Ireland

By Suzanne Breen

Published 09/11/2015

The secret story of transgender British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland will be told in an extraordinary photographic exhibition opening in Belfast this week.

The series of 12 amazing images by award-winning photographer Stephen King conveys the experience of trans squaddies in the army.

One of the most dramatic pictures is of Michaela, a former soldier who is now a long blonde-haired woman. She poses in cropped denim shorts and a khaki green T-shirt, brandishing a Sterling sub-machine gun.

Some of the soldiers, who were assigned male gender at birth, had deliberately decided to join the ultra-macho military world in the hope that it would decrease, or eradicate, their natural femininity.

The striking collection of photographic prints will go on view to the public in the Red Barn Gallery on Thursday as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival.

The exhibition is named, 'Dry Your Eyes Princess', after the derogatory jibe used unofficially within the Army encouraging soldiers to toughen and man up.

Ruth McCarthy, director of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival, denied there was anything contentious about the exhibition.

"Some people may be outraged by these photographs but I don't believe there is anything controversial or provocative about them. Everyone is allowed their place in the world. Everyone's story deserves to be heard," she said.

"These former soldiers are perfectly entitled to have their stories told. All they are doing is sharing their experiences, although I think some of the images like that of Michaela are quite challenging.

"Women aren't seen as being brutal so having a woman pictured with a big gun in her hand throws stereotypes on their head."

One photograph shows former squaddie, Dawn W, in a black and white print dress standing beside a LandRover with a brick in her hand.

The aim of the pictures is to encapsulate the experience of the each soldier in their army career. Dawn P, who served in Northern Ireland, is photographed standing by a window holding running shoes buried inside a pair of tights.

During her years in the Army, she excelled at physical training. She wanted her fitness level to be superior to that of her fellow recruits so they wouldn't be suspicious about her real identity.

Dawn dressed in secret and would hide tights in the toes of her running shoes. During an inspection, the tights were found. Dawn claimed she used them to store her muddy shoes so the rest of her kit wouldn't get dirty.

She was commended for her idea and other soldiers in her section soon started using tights for the same purpose.

Ms McCarthy said: "It is very moving to hear each person's account and we are hoping to have at least one of the soldiers present at the opening to answer questions.

"This is one of the most exciting things we've ever been involved in and we are hoping for a very positive response."

The exhibition is linked to a project in John Moore's University in Liverpool where history lecturer, Dr Emma Vickers, has interviewed the ex-squaddies. It runs in the Red Barn Gallery in Rosemary Street from November 12-28.

The ban on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans personnel in the Army was lifted in 1999. Before then, officials often confused gender and sexual identity with many trans soldiers, who were discharged, "accused" of being gay.

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